“Sharm El-Sheikh has all the makings of a tourist paradise,” says Ufrieda Ho, a freelance journalist based in South Africa’s Johannesburg.
Visiting the city for the first time ever to cover COP27, she was especially captivated by the blue waters of the Red Sea, the amazing underwater life, and surrounding mountains.
Ugandan Gilbert Mwijuke, a journalist working for Nation Media Group, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Sharm El-Sheikh is quiet and squeaky clean, with a road network that makes it easy for visitors to navigate the city.
“It is a romantic destination, a perfect place to go for a honeymoon vacation,” he said. “And it is relatively affordable for the average traveller.”
Listed by Tripadvisor as among the best destinations in 2022 for sun lovers, Sharm El-Sheikh is known as the City of Peace, a nod to the large number of international peace conferences it has hosted. Tripadvisor also described Sharm El-Sheikh as an attractive destination for divers and environmental tourists.
“It’s been boomtime,” says taxi driver Ashraf Amin. “On normal days, I used to collect LE2,000-2,500 during a 12-hour shift but during COP27 that’s gone up to LE5,000 and more.”
Mohamed Saad, another taxi driver, agreed with Amin.
Their business does not seem to have been affected by the new eco-friendly buses that offer free rides. More than 200 locally-made buses that run on electricity and natural gas were sent to Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this month to help transport the more than 40,000 COP27 attendees around the city.
Ahmed Hassan, who works in hotel bookings, confirmed that hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh are fully booked because of COP27. “The few rooms that are still available are more than a triple what they would cost normally,” he said.
The situation is not the same when it comes to night life venues. “Current visitors are not here on vacation but for work and this is reflected in the demand for party venue tickets,” one ticket seller told the Weekly.
“The majority are visiting Sharm El-Sheikh for the first time. They will either do marketing for the city among their friends and relatives when they arrive back home, and might come and visit Sharm again themselves.”
Egypt’s tourism sector has been struggling to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The number of tourists dropped from 13 million in 2019 to 3.7 million in 2020 before rising to 8.2 million in the first nine months of the fiscal year 2021-22, according to Central Bank of Egypt data.
“As someone who lives in a tourist town — Cape Town — I found Sharm El-Sheikh to be similar,” said Lameez Sureya, a journalist for News24. “I enjoyed the hospitality from people and the common greeting ‘You’re welcome’. I certainly felt welcome and will definitely return for a proper holiday.”
“The food seems very much influenced by the Mediterranean diet. I enjoyed it a lot because it is different to what I eat regularly. My favourite experience was dancing with locals in the streets of Sharm El-Sheikh. The music is just infectious, it lifts your spirit so you feel free to dance as you wish.”
The streets of Sharm El-Sheikh were alive at night with the dances and songs of folklore bands from all of Egypt’s governorates.
Vibeke Quaade, who works as senior communications consultant at the Copenhagen-based Danida Fellowship Centre, believes that as a holiday destination Sharm El-Sheikh has everything you could want — perfect temperatures, sandy beaches, great restaurants and friendly locals.
“Bright and polished during the day, beautifully illuminated at night, glamorous and decadent to the core in all its endeavours,” Quaade told the Weekly.
Though it has become increasingly eco-friendly, with an environmentally friendly public transportation network, solar-powered lights, electricity charging stations for cars and buses, multi-bin garbage systems in streets to sort waste and a separate lane for bikes, Quaade says you would still need to take a break from your environmental conscience to holiday in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The alluring bustle of Sharm El-Sheikh, unfortunately, comes at a price. “The energy it takes to light the city at night, the cement and other building materials used, the air conditioners that blast, the sheets washed every day, basically the modern middleclass overuse-of-resources-lifestyle that we live and enjoy especially on holiday and that has brought us to the current climate crisis are all a worry,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.